Reviews

Dishonored 2 Review – Dishonorable Problems, Honorable Gameplay

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Platforms: PS4, Xbox One and PC
Reviewed On: Xbox One
Developer: Arkane
Publisher: Bethesda
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer: No

Review code provided free of charge by the publisher.

Back in 2012 Arkane released Dishonored, a first-person stealth ’em up (if you wanted to be stealthy, anyway) set in a unique world with a beautiful visual style.  It became one of my favorite games of all time, eating up hours and hours and hours of my life. I became almost worrying familiar with its levels, and yet even then I didn’t want to stop. I was enjoying myself too much.

Skip forward a bit and Arkane are back with a sequel that tries to address the problems of the first game while chucking in some new stuff, too. This is a relatively safe follow-up, and that can be viewed as something terrible or something good depending on what you want from sequels in general. If you want more of the same, but with good additions then read on, because Dishonored 2 is going to make you very, very happy.

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Mere minutes into the game you’re given an important choice: do you want to play as Corvo Attano, the lead protagonist from the first game, or his daughter and empress Emily Kaldwin? You can’t swap between the two of them, so the decision here locks you into what abilities you’ll have for the rest of the game. Don’t worry, you won’t be missing out on story, though, as the narrative is kept nearly identical regardless of who you play as with the dialogue simply tweaked.

With that choice made its into the game proper, so let’s chat about the basics of Dishonored in case you’ve somehow never played the original. Using a first-person perspective the goal is to get through the levels and tackle the objective, either through sneaky tactics like clambering around the environment or by just charging in and killing everything using guns, swords and magic powers.

Yup, awesome powers are back and they’re as fun as they ever were. If you opt to play as Corvo then you’ll through the game with the same power selection as the first Dishonored, which means cool stuff like Blink, the ability to possess enemies and animals and being able to slow down time to a crawl. Emily, meanwhile, gets Far Reach, a version of Blink that’s let’s her bounce around the environment like a lunatic. After that, though, her powers differ from her father’s, starting with the likes of Mesmerize which summons a strange object that guards just can’t look away from. She can also get Doppleganger, which spawns a clone of herself who will run away, causing nearby foes to give chase. Shadow Walk turns Emily into a creepy shadow that skulks along and can tear guards limb from limb. But the true star of the show is Domino which links enemies together, causing whatever happens to one of them to occur to the rest as well. Link two guards together, for instance, and slit one’s throat and they’ll both die.

Seeing how abilities and tools can be combined is a huge part of Dishonored’s fun.  You can strap a mine to a rat and then possess it before charging into a guard and blowing everyone up. As Emily you can link guard’s to your Doppleganger, and then choke out the Doppleganger, knocking out the linked foes in the process. Better yet, I used Domino to link an enemy to my doppleganger who he shot, promptly killing himself in the process. Hell, you can even use your clone to avoid fall damage by summoning her on the ground and performing an aerial assassination. That’s not even to mention things like stun mines, grenades, sleep darts, howling arrows and more. How about killing a guard, sticking a stun mine to him and then tossing the corpse off a building so his comrades come investigate and wind up getting electrocuted for their trouble? Rewiring a sentry turret so it guns everyone down? Yup. Stopping time and going on a Blink killing spree? Cool.  Stopping time, strapping a mine to someone and then starting time again? Awesome. Irritated than Mesmerize can only captivate up to three people at once but rooms often contain more than that? No problems, combine it with Domino and you can have entire buildings full of gormless guards. There’s a lot to play with here and most of the fun comes from doing just that. Plus with a different set of powers available there is a reason to go for a second run.

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Much of the game’s genius comes from its staggeringly good level design. They aren’t the biggest, although they are considerably  larger than Dishonored’s, but they’re packed with routes, nooks, crannies and secrets worth discovering, as well as being very memorable. The obvious standout is Jindosh’s mansion, a sprawling complex where pulling levers alters the layout, transforming rooms. I spent two hours on this level alone, investigating everything I could. That’s followed up by a level with horrendous dust storms that massively reduce your visibility, a blessing and a curse since it means guards can’t spot you, but you can’t spot them until it’s too late. Another great example is a level where you can gain safe passage by bringing the leader of one faction to the other, depending on who you side with. Or you can break into both areas and gather clues to solve a riddle to unlock a large door. Or better yet you can even skip a good portion of it all by just solving the riddle yourself, although be warned it’s actually pretty damn difficult and should test your grey matter quite nicely. In other words Arkane have taken the already impressive level design of Dishonored and improved it, adding in small gameplay tweaks.

Like before you can get through the entire game without killing a soul if you wish, including the primary targets. A bit of investigation will always reveal a non-lethal alternative, like stripping someone of their powers rather than just shoving a knife into their skull. The game does a nice job of giving your targets little glimmers of good, too, to make you second guess what you wish to do with them. With that said, much like the original Dishonored most of the people you kill along the way are forgettable fodder, which is a shame. It’s also a shame that despite trying to give these targets some moral grey areas and therefore bring some subtlety into the mix the game still insists on using the chaos rating system, whereby the more you kill the higher your chaos rating. Maybe it’s just me, but really basic good/bad meters like that feel daft except in certain circumstances.

There’s even the occasional side-mission to be found within levels, too, giving you another reason to have a good poke around. These will typically unlock helpful things, like the electricity on carriage lines being shut off so you can walk along them,. Black market shops are also scattered around, giving you a chance to purchase upgrades and supplies. Or you could just rob them blind if you prefer.

If that wasn’t enough then Runes and Bonecharms will ensure you scour the levels like a madman looking for the last Wine Gum. Runes are the things you need to acquire new powers and upgrade existing ones, so it’s always worth grabbing those, while Bonecharms provide small passive bonuses, such as being able to regenerate your mana or slightly better health gains when drinking a potion. Bonecharms can also be broken down and their parts used to craft new ones.

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To find these you’ve got a handy-dandy heart. Yup, an actual heart that you can hold. Dishonored veterans will already know what it does, but basically the heart will show the locations of all Runes and Bonecharms in the level, so if you don’t fancy checking everywhere to find them then just whip the heart out and let it guide you. But far more awesome is how pulling the left trigger with the heart equipped will cause it to comment on wherever you are at the moment. Point it at an enemy and it will provide some insight into who they are, which brings an extra layer of morality to the game. Some people are just jerks who you’ll want to slice up regardless of whether you’ve only been playing as a pacifist up to that point, while others you’ll want to leave alone. You could devote an entire playthrough to being a supernatural judge, jury and executioner.

Even the combat has been mildly improved so that it feels better. It has been kept simple, too: block an enemy strike at the right time and you can go in for an instant kill or choke, but try to take on multiple opponents and you’ll be cut to ribbons. Head-on assaults are all about being smart, then, such as rewiring a Wall of Light so it’ll free the enemy, or picking them off with your crossbow or pistol before getting into a sword duel, and knowing when to retreat. That last bit is key as I’ve seen a lot of reviews criticising the combat for how it feels clumsy when battling multiple enemies, but that’s deliberate, I feel. You might be a superpowered assassin, but you’re soft and squishy, too.

When you bring everything together it is gloriously fun and satisfying. levels have lots of verticality and are somehow designed to accommodate everything, from players who want to use Blink to take advantage of that verticality to those who want to stick to the ground to those who refuse the supernatural powers at the start of the game and want to play purely as a normal human with an aptitude for turning other human’s into shish-kebabs. I know I’m repeating myself but the level design is just brilliant. Personally I’m a stealth fan with a penchant for non-lethal which can sometimes curb my desire to go nuts with the systems, so I fired up a second-playthrough specifically to play with everything and had a blast from start to finish. The original Dishonored was guilty of having lots of cool stuff for people who wanted to murder everything and very little for stealthy, non-lethal players like me, but Dishonored 2 solves that with powers like Mesmerize and Domino.

Visually the game has taken a big leap forward since the original Dishonored while still retaining that unique style which I can’t even begin to put into words. Some issue with texture streaming damages this, though, as do a small host of other graphical hiccups. It’s a shame because otherwise the game can look gorgeous at times.

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The audio is likewise a mixed bag of great and bad. Individual sound effects are superb, such as the clashing of steel on steel or the low-down bark of your pistol as it demolishes someone’s brains. The voice acting is generally quite good, too. However, where the problem lies is in the sound mix. Enemies a floor up or down will often sound like they’re walking right beside or behind you due to how loud the footsteps, while sometimes guards several rooms away can be heard very clearly. It can also be hard to tell where sounds are coming from, which is vital in a game like this if you want to stay hidden or get the drop on people. When choking out a foe there’s also a series of very loud footsteps that almost block out anything else. What all of this leads to is a disorienting soundscape that constantly seeks to make you jump because you thought someone was right behind you. Up close and personal the sound is fine, but at a distance and when layered it’s got a lot of work to be done.

So what other problems does the game have? Well, for starters the story feels almost like an afterthought at times, not helped by the incredibly rushed intro that introduces Emily and Corvo before Emily is tossed off the throne by a strange relative with incredibly powers. Cue a classic revenge story, either as Emily attempting to reclaim her throne or as Corvo attempting to just be a bloody badass. It’s okay stuff but does suffer from a lack of interesting characters and is otherwise just “eh” in how its told.

Both Emily and Corvo ar fully voiced now but it seems Arkane didn’t want to make them full characters to go with it, so what we’ve ended up with is a strange mixture of silent protagonist and person who occasionally butts in. Their personalities are deliberately kept on the down-low and that’s a shame. Corvo already went an entire game without speaking a word, and he doesn’t really get to say much more here.

Still, if the game doesn’t do the grand overarching story as well as it should it does at least do the small ones reasonably well. There are notes, books and diaries all over the city of Karnaca that you can ignore, which would be daft since they often contain helpful clues, or that you can read and enjoy. Plus there’s some nice moments to be found, like a pair of sisters talking about stealing silver to escape the city.

Input lag is also a pain in the ass. It doesn’t make the game unplayable, but there’s a noticeable slowness to the controls that is annoying. You’ll adjust as time goes on, but it should never have been an issue in the first place. And while I personally didn’t experience many bugs or problems it’s worth noting that a lot of people have. The legend that is Jim Sterling, for example, pointed out in his own quite negative review that in one instance his target just randomly died during the level, while Reddit and Steam are filled with folk encountering trouble. As for the PC version it seemingly has a lot of problems and should probably be avoided until Arkane have sorted it out.

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As always, though, I review a game based on my own experiences with it, and from that perspective Dishonored 2 is absolutely wonderful. It’s a safe sequel in many regards, opting to stick to what everyone loved about the first game rather than introducing any radical new concepts, but it takes that original formula and refines it beautifully. The levels are memorable and stand as some of the best examples of how to design an environment for gameplay in recent memory, while the core gameplay is as satisfying and fun as it ever was, improved by the addition of some cool new powers and level gimmicks. The story could be stronger and the input lag needs sorted, but from my experience this is one of the best games of the year.

And yet….and yet I almost didn’t give it a recommendation. I feel the need to be harsher and more critical of games being launched in poor states because it’s something that frustrates me hugely about the industry at the moment. But I also moved away from a score in my reviews for a reason, and the recommended sticker is supposed to be for games that may have huge problems too, but that I still think are worth playing, and Dishonored 2 falls into that category perfectly. It needs work, but Dishonored 2 is honestly some of the best fun I’ve had all year.

So that brings me to the conclusion, and it’s a complicated one; it’s a game I absolutely recommend you play, yet it’s one that I also recommend you wait to play. My experience was pretty smooth on console, but it would be idiotic to ignore the many, many people who are struggling with poor framerates. If you’re a PC gamer, definitely wait for some patches to hit. If you’re a console gamer it’s harder to call. It’s up to you. Just know that the game beneath the issues is spectacular. It’s just a shame Bethesda have upheld their legacy of pushing out unfinished games.

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